“You Know What I Was,/You See What I Am: Change Me, Change Me!”

The saris go by me from the embassies.
Cloth from the moon. Cloth from another planet.
They look back at the leopard like the leopard.
And I….
               this print of mine, that has kept its color
Alive through so many cleanings; this dull null
Navy I wear to work, and wear from work, and so
To my bed, so to my grave, with no
Complaints, no comment: neither from my chief,
The Deputy Chief Assistant, nor his chief—
Only I complain…. this serviceable
Body that no sunlight dyes, no hand suffuses
But, dome-shadowed, withering among columns,
Wavy beneath fountains—small, far-off, shining
In the eyes of animals, these beings trapped
As I am trapped but not, themselves, the trap,
Aging, but without knowledge of their age,
Kept safe here, knowing not of death, for death—
Oh, bars of my own body, open, open!
The world goes by my cage and never sees me.
And there come not to me, as come to these,
The wild beasts, sparrows pecking the llamas’ grain,
Pigeons settling on the bears’ bread, buzzards
Tearing the meat the flies have clouded….
When you come for the white rat that the foxes left,
Take off the red helmet of your head, the black
Wings that have shadowed me, and step to me as man:
The wild brother at whose feet the white wolves fawn,
To whose hand of power the great lioness
Stalks, purring….
                              You know what I was,
You see what I am: change me, change me!

–Randall Jarrell, “The Woman at the Washington Zoo,” The Complete Poems

I can’t even describe how much I love this poem. I can hardly stand to read it; it makes my head explode. The vulture. (A few of the line spacings are missing — for some reason, I can’t get it to show up correctly in the post. Sorry about that.)

I discovered it when I read Marjorie Williams’s The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family, and Fate. It’s a very moving book, which I highly recommend — and the aptness of the poem is astonishing.

On the subject of Randall Jarrell, if you love children’s books, I highly recommend The Animal Family. A beautiful, quiet book, with gorgeous illustrations from Maurice Sendak.

Video: “I Can’t Stick to My Good Habit, Because I’ll Inconvenience Someone Else.”

In my latest (bestselling) book, Better Than Before, I identify the twenty-one strategies of habit-formation, and one is the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the ten categories of loopholes. I love studying loopholes, because they’re so funny. And ingenious! We’re such great advocates for ourselves — in any situation, we can always think of some loophole to invoke.

Well, what is a “loophole?” When we try to form and keep habits, we often search for loopholes, for justifications that will excuse us from keeping this particular habit in this particular situation. However, if we catch ourselves in the act of loophole-seeking, we can perhaps reject them.

In Better Than Before, I describe all ten categories of loopholes; in this video series. I’ll describe them, one by one.

Sixth of ten loopholes: The Concern for Others Loophole. We tell ourselves that we need to break a good habit out of concern for someone else.


Other examples?

Other people’s feelings will be hurt if I don’t partake.

I can’t ask my partner to stay with the kids while I go to class.

At a business dinner, if everyone is drinking, it would seem weird if I didn’t drink. (Somewhat to my surprise, this loophole comes up a lot with drinking. Teenagers aren’t the only ones to feel peer pressure to drink, it seems.)

For some people, this loophole is a major challenge. Relationships are a key to happiness, and if a particular habit makes you feel very awkward about being out of sync in a social situation, or you worry that you’re hurting other people’s feelings or making them feel uncomfortable, this is a real factor in the formation of a habit.

By identifying the loophole, you can identify possible solutions. “Everyone else is drinking, so I’ll order a sparkling water, and no one will know what’s in my glass.” “Everyone else is ordering a drink, so I’ll order a glass of wine, but I won’t drink it, I’ll just leave it on the table.” “My grandmother gets upset if I don’t take seconds, so I’ll take a very small portion the first time, so she sees me go back for more.” “I’ll talk to my partner about whether this new habit is actually inconvenient, and if so, how we can work out a schedule that works for both of us.”

Sidenote: when you’re forming a new habit that feels awkward to others, give them time to adjust. Any change feels awkward at first. But if you keep starting and stopping, no gets used to a new pattern. For instance, a friend wanted to go for a run on weekend mornings, but her family complained that she wasn’t around to get the day started — so she immediately stopped. She started again, and stuck to it, and after the first few weekends went by, everyone got used to starting the day on their own.

Is this a loophole that you invoke? In what situations? I love studying loopholes! They’re so ingenious.

Agree, Disagree? Memories Live Longer Than Dreams.

Interview: James Wallman.

I’ve long been fascinated by the relationships between people and possessions. It’s a complicated, rich, emotionally-fraught bond. In the chapter on the Strategy of Distinctions in my book Better Than Before, for instance, I discuss the difference between over-buyers and under-buyers, and abundance-lovers and simplicity-lovers, and how those differences affect habits.

On this fascinating subject, James Wallman has a new book, Stuffocation: Why We’ve Had Enough of Stuff and Need Experience More than Ever,

I was very interested to hear what James had to say about habits, possessions, happiness, and human nature.

Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

James: In a note my Granddad, Jack, gave me on the day he died, he wrote that “Memories live longer than dreams.” As you can imagine, I’ve thought about that note a lot since then. I now believe he meant that what matters in life isn’t material things but experiences. So I have an ingrained habit to spend as little (money, time, energy) as possible on stuff, and as much as possible on experiences. When I come to any decision, I ask myself: will this, at the least, create a memory? It’s a great habit because it informs everything I do, it makes making decisions so much easier. I buy far less stuff, and do more things. And it makes my life full of interesting experiences.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

The most important thing I’ve learned about forming healthy habits is the difference between the conscious and unconscious mind. Daniel Kahneman calls them System 2 and System 1 in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein think of them, in Nudge, as Homo Economicus and Homer Economicus. And Jonathan Haidt, in The Happiness Hypothesis, describes them as like the elephant and the rider. These ways of seeing the conscious and unconscious mind have made it clear to me that you have to set things up to help yourself follow your habits. Your System 1, Homo Economicus, rider has to “architect choice” for your System 2, Homer Economicus, elephant—so it’s easy for you to follow any habit.

So, if you don’t want to eat chocolate, don’t have chocolate in the house. If you don’t want to drink beer, don’t go to the pub. If you don’t want to end up with more stuff, don’t go shopping. And then, don’t only not do something, but have something positive to head towards. Have an alternative, non-sugary treat in the house. Have another way to spend time with friends: go climbing, for a walk, to the cinema, or anywhere where beer or shopping isn’t the main activity.

By architecting choice, you (the rider) can steer the elephant in the right direction.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

Checking email! I’ve removed email from my phone so I can’t check it when I’m away from my computer.

Which habits are most important to you? (for heath, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

I believe in sacred time. I can’t multi-task anyway, but I find it’s too easy to get distracted (hello, email). So whatever I’m doing, I try to completely focus on it. I switch my cellphone to airplane mode when I go to the park with my kids, for instance. So instead of checking Twitter and catching up with friends by text (hah, getting rid of email only takes you so far!), I actually focus on hanging out with them.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I didn’t understand the categories till I’d taken the quiz, to be honest. But since I took the test and it says I’m a Questioner I totally get it. It’s me exactly: I question everything that I’m told, and I like to stick to things that matter to me. How else can any author be good at what they do? Our job is to question things, work out if they’re true, if they work, if they’re worth sharing. And then, we have to knuckle down and put hours, days, years, early mornings, late nights into bringing our passion from that idea that struck us at some obscure, quiet moment into the bright light of publication day. Hey, that’s how it’s been for this author at least!

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

I like to meditate early in the morning. It’s great for focusing the mind, setting up the day, getting things done. But I have a one-year-old and a three-year-old – and as often as not, they get up too. Hey, at least I get to hang out with them and have breakfast… which I guess is a healthy habit too.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

That note from my Granddad.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I’m realistic: we’re creatures of habit. So the best thing is to try to create good habits.

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

My Mum and Dad. They’ve always been very positive. It wasn’t that they pushed my brother and I, but they would always say: “It doesn’t matter how well you do, just do your best.” And they meant it. They didn’t judge us (or at least, I didn’t feel like they were judging us) on whether we succeeded or failed at something. They were happy if we’d had a go. And I think that’s a good practice, a good habit to have. Life throws all sorts of things at us: ups, downs, amazing surprises and frustrating setbacks. And if you know you’re doing all you can do, if you know you’re not wasting your opportunity, the result doesn’t matter. You can stand tall, be satisfied and happy with yourself, knowing you’re doing your best.

Podcast 24: Take Photos of Everyday Life, the Tension that Exists in Love–and Should I Get a Dog?

It’s time for the next installment of  “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.

BlankeeElizabethUpdate: After episode 17, listeners got in touch to tell us about the things that they call their preciousssss. Fascinating. And do you have a beloved toy — or other artifact — that you still treasure from childhood? Here’s Elizabeth’s Blankey (I confirmed the spelling).

Try This at Home: Take photos of everyday life. Never forget how easy it is to forget.

Assay: Elizabeth and I discuss a story that singer-songwriter-author Rosanne Cash told us about working with her husband, in episode 22. It really resonated with us, because it captures an important tension that exists within loving relationships: “You’re awesome just the way you are” vs. “You can do better.” (By the way, our producer Henry did give me notes at the end of the episode! Which I really do appreciate–his job is to push us harder.)

Listener Question: “My family has moved to a new city. We loved the city where we were living, but how do we make sure we’re as happy in our new city as we were in our old city?” (I can’t resist including a link to my book, Happier at Home, which is all about — you guessed it — how to be happier at home.)

BlackJackCatGretchen’s Demerit: My daughters really want a dog, but I’m not sure I want a dog. Listeners, should we get a dog?

Elizabeth’s Gold Star: She’s a good sister and talks to me at length about the dog issue. (Here’s a photo of Elizabeth’s cat Blackjack.)

As always, thanks to our terrific sponsors.  Want to avoid post-office pain, and buy and print official U.S. postage for any letter or package, right from your own computer and printer? Visit Stamps.com to sign up for a no-risk trial, plus a $110 bonus offer — just enter the promo code HAPPIER.

Also, check out The Great Courses for a wide variety of fascinating courses. Special offer for our listeners: go to thegreatcourses.com/happier to order from eight of their bestselling courses, including Behavioral Economics: When Psychology and Economics Collide, and get up to 80% off. Limited time.

We’d love to hear from you. Especially if you have any ideas about whether my family should get a dog!

Comment below. Email: podcast@gretchenrubin.com. Twitter: @gretchenrubin and @elizabethcraft. Call: 744-277-9336. Here’s the Facebook Page. To sign up for my free monthly newsletter, text me at 66866 and enter the word (surprise) “happier.

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Secrets of Adulthood: “__ Is a Good Servant But a Bad Master.” Fill in the Blank.

From Further Secrets of Adulthood: “_____ is a good servant but a bad master.”

What else would you suggest?

Habits, certainly.




How would you fill in that blank?